Landscape Legacy: Utilizing Native Plants for Natural Landscapes

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The pristine look of wall to wall turf and manicured plants is out among many landscape professionals, property managers, and gardeners. More and more often people are allowing swaths of property to revert to a more natural state. These more nuanced property managers are seeking out and planting native plants to accomplish this. There are many reasons for this change.

Image of a lawn

Photo: Steve Pettis

Cost

Natural areas are less expensive to manage. Regular mowing is not required. Costly herbicides are not needed to manage turf weeds. Fertilizers are unnecessary in natural areas where leaves are allowed to remain and decompose into valuable nutrients and organic matter.

Wildlife

Natural areas are beneficial to wildlife. Flowering plants including grasses produce nectar and pollen which benefits pollen and nectar-feeding insects. Areas that are not mowed or cut back in late summer provide an overwintering place for beneficial insects, amphibians, and reptiles. Birds are attracted by the abundance of insects and seeds on which they feed.

Lower emissions

Natural landscapes are better for the environment than highly managed ones. Greenhouse emissions are reduced by lowering the use of environmentally unfriendly machinery. Chemical inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers are unnecessary. Soil health improves when chemical use goes down and compaction from heavy machinery ceases. 

Reducing turf areas can lower inputs.

Reducing turf areas can lower inputs. Image: Steve Pettis

Legacy

Natural areas leave behind a positive environmental legacy in the landscape. Native trees and shrubs can live for decades or even centuries. The natural landscapes we plant today become the woodlands and parks of the future. An oak may take 25 years before it starts casting any real shade but it can go on cooling our environment, stabilizing soil, and capturing pollutants long after we are all gone.

native plants planted today are an investment in the future

Native plants planted today are an investment in the future. Image: Steve Pettis

 Where to begin

Recently I worked with a landowner who has a five-acre property. He was killing himself and his wallet maintaining four acres of grass. We identified areas where he could stop mowing. These areas were the bottoms between small hills where water collected and soil was often saturated. Others were hilltops where the soil would often be dry. We expanded the footprint of wooded areas where he could let the current year’s leaves and small twigs fall and remain in place after summer. That was it. These small changes reduced the area he was mowing by half. In my opinion, his estate went from looking very bland to looking more like an arboretum; like a European garden such as you would find at many fine estates.

 Planting Natives

To learn more on selecting native plants and incorporating natives into your landscape, visit the Native Plants chapter of the Extension Gardener Handbook, the Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, and the North Carolina Native Plant Society.

Steve Pettis

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